25 December 2005

The Intelligence Our Army Lacks.

The most serious deficit in the United States Army isn't an outdated assault rifle with a smallish bullet or less than optimal body armor supplies, although neither is ideal. The biggest problem is a huge shortage of soft skills, like an ability to speak a foreign language and the ability to understand foreign cultures.

Training for peacekeeping is turning out to be more expensive than getting ready for a war. A prime example of this can be seen in the U.S. Army’s JRTC (Joint Readiness Training Center) at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Not too long ago, putting a brigade through a month of realistic training at JRTC cost $2 million. But it costs $9 million to run the same brigade through a month of peacekeeping training (for Iraq or Afghanistan.) The major additional cost is payroll. Over 800 civilians, including either Afghan or Iraqi-Americans, are brought in and trained how to act as civilians, aid workers, reporters and so on. . . . For the troops, the JRTC experience is more revealing, and educational, than anything else they have done to get ready for action. Perhaps the biggest lesson is the need for some cultural awareness. The U.S. Army Special Forces has long appreciated this, but the rest of the army is playing catch up. Thus, while the troops are given cards or booklets containing useful phrases in the local language, when they confront “actors” on the “set” who are actually Afghans or Iraqis, and won’t speak to them in English (representing the fact that few people in these countries can), the troops either have to remember and use those phrases they were supposed to have memorized, or try and get along without. It’s much easier if you can say a few words in the local language, and this way they learn why at Fort Polk, instead of overseas, where such problems can get them killed.

The troops will later get to talk to the Afghan-American or Iraqi-American actors, and get the lessons repeated in English, with assurances that, “over there,” bad manners can have very serious consequences.

This is one case where actual proficency in a foreign language is far more useful than the minimal phase book abilities we are pushing for which would, themselves, be a major breakthrough.

The U.S. military spends something on the order of half of all the military spending in the entire world, and has used the funds largely to purchase some of the most lethal and expensive weapons systems in the world and to train troops to use them. Yet, every kind of spending has diminishing returns. The ability of the United States military to obliterate enemy battleships, fighter jets, tanks, artillery emplacements and military bases is unquestioned and unmatched by any military in the world. But, good weapons are only useful if you can secure enough cooperation from the locals to know who to shoot. Even a friendly local population can't do much to assist a military unit that lacks the ability to communicate fruitfully with the locals.

Language instruction is expensive, but it isn't that expensive. For the cost of one littoral combat ship or two F-22s a year, $220 million, you could give about five thousand eighteen year old Army recruits foreign language and culture instruction at twice the cost of a Harvard education a year. After four years, the Army would have 20,000 or so trained foreign language specialists (a number that would then grow more slowly as departures from military service had to be replaced). This would allow every company commander, maybe even every platoon commander, in place like Iraq or Afghanistan, to have a trained interpreter available to interface with the local community fruitfully and in the process gather valuable intelligence. These skills would save hundreds of U.S. lives in the field, as our own training process has shown, and would also help us win non-conventional conflicts. And, after those soliders left service, there would be a huge pool of people well equipped to participate in international business, the diplomatic corps, or civilian intelligence activities, all of which would extend U.S. influence abroad.

The term "intelligence" as used in national security circles hides a multitude of activities. Much of the money we spend now is high tech. And, much of the information we gain with both high tech and human sources is so sensitive (as pertains to methods and sources) that it can't be widely disseminated, even to people who might actually find it useful. But, you have to run to establish the pass, and in this case it means that we need to have lots of people who can simply communicate, before more sophisticated intelligence can be used to its full potential. What it takes to do this is no secret and it doesn't have to be a secret. A heavy investment in these basic building blocks of language skills and cultural understanding would make the Army more effective in the kinds of peacekeeping and counterinsurgency missions that have dominated actual use of the Army since World War II, which is what a strong military is all about.

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